Key Steps Businesses Need To Take To Prepare For A Successful And Sustainable Digital Transformation
The pace and quantum of change we are experiencing are unprecedented. The economic and political landscape is fraught, generational shifts are profound, and the pandemic reimagined many aspects of our lives in ways no one could have predicted. In this never-normal world, organisations must build and strengthen their powers of agility to enable them to stay relevant with their customers, pre-empting and delivering against their ever-changing needs. Digital transformation enables organisational agility, however, unless it’s coupled with encouraging and training mental agility within teams, the chances of successful and sustainable change are remote.
Digital transformation is a critical enabler for businesses to strengthen their agility muscle. Using new technologies we can re-imagine business processes, culture, customer, and employee experiences to meet the rapidly changing demands of the market in which we operate. It focuses intensely on how we interact with customers and how we provide products and services that meet their needs, often before they realise those needs themselves. It breaks down traditional organisational silos and hierarchies, improves both customer and
employee experience and satisfaction, reduces cost and transforms the pace of decision making. And yet, although the benefits of a digital transformation programme are widely recognised, they are illusive to deliver in practice with almost 80% of initiatives never delivering on the original objectives.
Why is this? Because the traditional rational approach to programme delivery that focuses on milestones and long-term plans completely misses the fact that we, and our teams around us, are not digital beings (yet).
We are, in fact, beautifully irrational with real feelings and emotions which are powerful and unpredictable. As humans, we’re hardwired to fear and be uncomfortable with change, and rejecting uncertainty is a natural instinct. We fear the unknown and stay within our comfort zones. We stick to what we know for fear of criticism or losing control, shaped by cultural influences around us, any past negative experiences of change will reinforce our danger receptors whenever we think about doing something different in the future. And interestingly, while many of us fear failure, equally some people fear success.
So to deliver change in any organisation, let alone become agile, addressing and conquering the powerful human headwind of the fear of change is a critical prerequisite.
But it is possible for us to train our brains to thrive in environments of change. This concept of mental agility has been developed from research into how we learn, how we develop psychological resilience and our approach to innovation and has become a critical skill to successfully navigate today’s workplace.
Through mental agility, we can become more flexible in the way we respond to change, helping us to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable, and allowing us to recognise change as an opportunity over something to avoid at all costs. This enables our teams, and ourselves, to tackle the challenges of change head-on at pace, embracing uncertainty as an opportunity to shape the future in a way that ensures that we continue to stay relevant to our customers and subsequently our colleagues.
Steps to overcoming the fear of change and creating an agile mindset:
1. Accept the here and now and focus on the need for change instead of fighting against it – past success is not a predictor of future success, and to get a different outcome you need to do something different. Sounds obvious, yet so many organisations are losing relevance every day by sticking their heads in the sand and hoping life will return to how it was before.
2. Tackle underlying fears – unless you address these head-on, you are entering a never-ending battle of wills that ultimately will end in failure. The key here is communication and authenticity. Be honest about the need for change and what could happen if things stay the same. And recognise the elephants in the room and hit them head-on. Your teams will worry about what the change means for them. Be as honest as you can to address this right from the start with the commitment that you will update people on the journey. Encourage people to ask questions. And recognise that we all process emotions differently and at our own pace. There is no playbook. We need leaders to share concerns and anxiety, and this behaviour will encourage our teams to do the same.
3. Drive emotional engagement with the change through purpose – the emotional reason why your customers keep coming back to you and why your colleagues keep coming in every day is your purpose. And to be clear, purpose is not your product or to make money! Engagement through purpose activates the emotional brain, which is also the home of fear and creates a neutralising effect. And by visualising your purpose and the destination of your programme of change you will reduce anxiety. You wouldn’t build a house without a plan showing what it will look like. So why would you take an organisation through a programme of change without even a sketch to visualise the destination?
4. Ask teams to develop solutions to challenges – it is amazing how many problems discussed around the board table could be quickly scoped and resolved by the teams on the ground and closest to the customer. Delegating power to the teams who understand the changes required clearly demonstrates your faith in their decision-making and execution and eases the fear of getting something wrong. The approach of “failing fast, learning quickly” is an essential ingredient to mental agility.
5. Eat the elephant one piece at a time – by approaching overwhelming challenges in small, digestible sprints, our minds can visualise an outcome more clearly and benefit from the self-fulfilling confidence that is delivered through success. Equally, if it goes wrong, the failure is not significant enough to derail a programme of change completely.
6. Sometimes it just isn’t the right time to make a decision – we have all had challenges that however much we churn them over, a solution just isn’t clear. Forcing an organisation to make a change when the time isn’t right creates the potential for significant damage so get comfortable with being uncomfortable and stay there until the time is right.
7. Focus on a growth mindset – encourage teams to believe that their talents are not god-given gifts, instead, we can choose to develop new skills by learning from experience whenever we want to. Continuous improvement can be trained and embedded into everyone’s daily routine. And if everyone makes even one improvement every day, that adds up to a wave of change that just becomes part of the way things are done around here.
8. Try something new daily – routine is comfortable, it avoids uncertainty and provides safety. It also avoids the opportunity to try new things. Encourage and reward your teams for the crazy ideas. Allocate meaty business challenges to cross-functional teams and let them solutionise themselves. Incubate and reward the crazy. You may just be developing the next big thing for your customer without even realising it.
And if your organisation has been avoiding getting more comfortable with the uncomfortable, know that by embracing change with an agile mindset your fears can be overcome. As the saying goes, the only thing to fear is fear itself, and that’s about the shape of it.
About the author: Helen Ashton is the founder & CEO of Shape Beyond, a management consultancy business which provides strategic advice and hands-on experience to drive real tangible value in your business, fast. She has experience in generating rapid growth in private equity portfolio businesses, corporates and founder-led companies. She was previously CFO of ASOS, the global online fashion business and is a huge advocator of the power of digital transformation. Helen also is a Non-Executive Director at JD Sports Plc, the FTSE 100 sports and fashion retailer.